Area dairy owners may lose cattle herd

Jack King

Officials are discussing with the owners of two Roosevelt County dairies the possibility of killing their cattle to eliminate all traces of bovine tuberculosis, State Veterinarian Dr. Steve England said Wednesday.
The recent discovery of the disease led the United States Department of Agriculture to announce it will downgrade New Mexico from a “bovine TB free” status to a “modified accredited advanced” status. To regain the “TB free” status, the Livestock Board must develop a plan of testing, which could be carried out over a period of two to seven years.
Bovine tuberculosis is a contagious disease that until an eradication program in the middle part of the 20th century was considered a health hazard to humans. Infection could result from aerosol exposure or from ingestion of infected material.
Killing the cattle, known as depopulating the herds, would eliminate the need for owners of other herds to test their cattle and could reduce the time it takes to regain statewide “TB free” status to as little as two years, England said.
The USDA will compensate dairy owners for lost cattle in the depopulating process.
Ronnie Mitchell, owner of Mitchell Dairy, one of the herds where bovine TB has been found, said discussions with the state and federal agencies are in early stages. He said he is open to the idea of depopulating his herd for the right price.
“I’ve got to have the money to do without a milk check and get a new herd started,” he said.
Mitchell said he has about 1,400 cows in his herd. He said it’s hard to figure the economic value of each cow.
“A non-producing heifer, who is within three months of delivering a calf, could cost about $1,450. The cows in our herd have about 45 years of artificial insemination breeding with some of the best bulls in the industry. We’d be losing better cows than we could buy,” he said.
Mitchell estimated the economic effects of the infection in the Roosevelt County area could be in the millions of dollars.
“If we don’t depopulate, we could affect nine ranches around us, and we’re talking about big ranches. … I don’t know how they would ever test all those cattle,” he said.
Mitchell said only one cow from his herd has been diagnosed with bovine TB. The infection was in her throat and veterinarians told his son it was not likely to spread, he said.
“We really feel we should not be quarantined,” he said.
Both the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association and the Dairy Producers of New Mexico have sent letters to the Livestock Board asking it to pursue “regionalization” in developing a state plan to deal with bovine TB, England said.
Under regionalization, only producers in an area around where the infection was discovered — in this case, all or part of Roosevelt County — would be required to test their cattle for the disease. Producers in the rest of the state would be spared, he said.
No strategy has been adopted, but, if regionalization were pursued, the goal would be to outline a region as small as is “medically and epidemiologically sound,” England said.
“If you de-pop the herds then you don’t have to regionalize or test statewide. You would have one to two years of testing, then regain your status, unless more cases were identified. If you don’t de-pop, you eliminate the infected animals from a herd, then there are a series of tests that can take six or seven years,” he said.
Tucumcari-area rancher Phil Bidegain, president of the state cattle growers association, said there will be no economic effect on the state’s beef and dairy business until the USDA actually takes away the “bovine TB free” status. In other states, this has taken as much as a year.
Afterward, any breeding stock leaving the state will have to be tested for the disease. This requires putting each animal in a holding chute twice, paying to keep it in a feedlot for three days, plus the cost of a veterinarian to do the tests, he said.
England said no program would require the testing of steers and bovine TB will not have any affect on milk that is pasteurized before going to the consumer.
Portales News-Tribune Managing Editor Mike Linn contributed to this story.